Salons of Paris, Then and Now

The quality of the eating, without a doubt, could make or break a Parisian salon. Today’s nostalgists may fantasize about the gathering of minds that took place each week at Gertrude Stein’s apartments on the rue de Fleurus near the jardins Luxembourg, but for many participants the buffet table held equal appeal. Stein’s lover Alice B. Toklas paid so much attention to what she served to eat that when she finally sat down to write her autobiography (not the pseudo-autobiography penned in her voice by Stein), her first attempt came out as a cookbook. Toklas’s cakes, and, even more so, her punch and eaux de vie, were legendary.

Stein welcomed visitors on Saturday evenings. Friday afternoons were reserved by Natalie Barney for her salon on the rue Jacob. Barney’s fantastic apartment, which included a neo-classical “temple of friendship” in the garden, was around the corner from the école des Beaux-Arts, Paris’s most important art school. However, her salon attracted mostly writers, both French and English speaking, many of whom left effusive accounts of the wonderful food that Barney served. Huge platters of chicken, ham, roast beef, and cucumber sandwiches occupied the center of the table, flanked by mountains of chocolate cakes, meringues, eclairs, strawberry tarts, and cheese twists. And always the champagne flowed generously.

Like Stein, Barney was an American, born in the 1870s. Like Stein she was also a lesbian. And like Stein, she loved to eat. Unlike Stein, unfortunately for her, she cared enormously about maintaining a girlish figure. Not for Natalie Barney was a life of monogamous companionship with a single woman. Barney unabashedly set out to seduce every woman who piqued her interest, which apparently countless women did. She was mistress of the grand gesture. Supposedly, she once had herself delivered naked, in a glass coffin surrounded by white lilies, to a subject of her desire. Barney felt it important to keep up appearances when naked, and to her that meant keeping slim. She was much given to diets. Happily, for Barney food and sex could be overlapping pleasures as well as conflicting desires. Every year she and the author Elisabeth de Gramont (one of Barney’s most significant loves) celebrated the anniversary of their affair by feasting together on a dozen plovers’ eggs, reputed as an aphrodisiac.

Natalie Barney nude
Natalie Barney nude, photographed in Bar Harbor, Maine in the summer of 1900. Visiting Bar Harbor with two early lovers, Eva Palmer and Renée Vivien (Pauline Tarn), the three young women spent many days in the woods, stripping down and taking photos with Barney’s brand new Brownie camera.

Yet another American in Paris laid claim to Thursday afternoons for her salons, at the Hôtel Bristol on the Right Bank, around the corner from the presidential Élysée palace. Florence Lacaze Gould, born in California, was a glamorous opera singer who had married Frank Jay Gould, youngest son of the railroad tycoon Jay Gould. Her salon never reached the prominence of Stein’s or Barney’s, and no doubt the poor food she served played a role. Only during World War II, when Gould became friendly with the German forces occupying Paris (she was rumored to have had three lovers within the Luftwaffe), did her table gain a positive reputation; she was able to offer far better pickings than non-collaborationists. Meanwhile, her competitors Barney and Stein had fled the scene – Barney for Florence and Stein for the French countryside. (Not that either woman was free from the taint of collaboration, despite Stein being Jewish, and Barney being at least partly so.)

Florence Jay Gould, ca.1930, long before the fatal monkey bite.
Florence Jay Gould, ca.1930

All three American salonistes threw frequent dinner parties as well. Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is filled with accounts of meals the couple hosted for artists. Toklas poached a bass for Picasso and painted it with pink mayonnaise, chopped egg whites and yolks, truffles, and parsley. Natalie Barney had guests for dinner every week. She hosted a yearly meal for a group of friends including the painter Marie Laurencin, the writer Germaine Beaumont, and the bookseller Anacréon, who all shared her birthday, October 31, and who called themselves the “Scorpion Club” after their common zodiac sign. One of Barney’s favorite dishes to serve at parties was “poulet Maryland,” or as readers of this blog might recall it from a previous post, Maryland chicken. A quintessential transatlantic dish, Barney’s version, prepared by her housekeeper Berthe Cleyrergue, was not fried but boiled and served with a mushroom cream sauce. I think I’ll stick to James Beard’s recipe.

Natalie Barney was herself the honored guest at a dîner des dames thrown by Florence Gould, which also included Elisabeth de Gramont and Barney’s greatest lover, the painter Romaine Brooks. Gould claimed that Barney had courted her passionately, serenading her with love poems. The two women became lifelong friends, if not lovers. Decades later Gould hosted one of the last parties Barney would ever attend, a lunch at the Hôtel Meurice in honor of Barney’s ninety-fifth (!) birthday. Barney passed away the following year. Gould survived her by a decade, before dying from a monkey bite sustained at a restaurant in the côte d’azur. No word from the monkey on whether Gould tasted better than the food she served her guests.

The author Roger Peyrefitte attributed the mediocre quality of the food at Gould’s salons to her stinginess. The woman had a passion for collecting modern art and jewels – she was a major patron and muse for Van Cleef & Arpels. She couldn’t waste her shekels on strawberry tarts.

Florence Gould's necklace featuring the 114-carat "Blue Princess" sapphire designed by Van Cleef & Arpels.
Florence Gould’s necklace featuring the 114-carat “Blue Princess” sapphire designed by Van Cleef & Arpels.

There’s probably a kinder explanation for the mediocre grub served at today’s “American salon” in Paris, the weekly Sunday night dinners hosted by literary figure Jim Haynes in his fourteenth arrondissement âtelier. Who can afford to feed delicacies to 50 to 60 people a week without being an heiress? Times are different now. The eighty-year-old Haynes, who was born in Louisiana, played a part in the art scenes of Edinburgh in the 50s (helping to start the fringe festival) and London in the 60s (friends with Barry Miles), before he moved to Paris in 1969, to take a job at Paris VIII teaching Media Studies and Sexual Politics. He’s done well enough to acquire a lovely garden apartment behind a green gate in a row of artists’ âteliers typical to the 14ème, but I doubt he has Barney’s, Stein’s, or Gould’s wealth.

Nor does he have their elitism. There were stringent requirements for attending Barney’s salon: one had to be a writer, or an artist, or extremely beautiful or chic, or at least extremely wealthy to attend. Above all, one could not be boring. If you were boring at Stein’s salon you were never invited back. To attend Haynes’s Sunday nights, all you need to do is ask. Send an email and if you’re within the first 50-60 to request a spot, then you’re on the list, free to come Sunday evening at eight, with your suggested thirty euro donation in an envelope.

guests begin to assemble outside Jim Haynes' âtelier on a recent Sunday evening
guests begin to assemble outside Jim Haynes’ âtelier on a recent Sunday evening

While my democratic inclinations recoil from the elitism – indeed the positively right-wing quasi-fascism – of that earlier generation of American salonistes, I can’t deny that there’s a problem with the open-door policy exercised by Haynes. At his salon, I felt like I had just paid for the privilege of attending a mildly boring cocktail party. Cocktail parties are never really my thing. I have a typical writer’s personality: somewhat introverted (although good at hiding it), mildly uncomfortable meeting new people, averse to small talk. I’m also particularly averse to being hit on by older would-be Lotharios, a type who seem to flock to Haynes’ salon in pursuit of the many charming young women in their twenties who also attend (see above).

Case in point: there’s a certain sixty-something American man in Paris who shows up to every event that English-speaking, intellectually-inclined, young women might attend, for the sole purpose – as far as I can tell – of hitting on them. Not so young is also fine by him, which I’ve learned by experience. I’ve seen him at Shakespeare & Company readings, I’ve seen him at the American Library in Paris, and I was unsurprised to see him at Jim Haynes’s Sunday night. One of his favorite opening gambits is to approach a young woman looking at a book and ask her “did you write that?” A few months ago I was at a reading with a friend and I was returning her copy of mega-bestseller The Goldfinch, which she had lent me, when this guy leaned in and interrupted our conversation to ask me: “are you Donna Tartt?” It’s at times like this that the New York side of my personality comes out, I just can’t be polite to such obvious dickheads. “No I’m not fucking Donna Tartt,” I answered (or something along those lines) and went back to my conversation. Anyway, at Haynes’s dinner we overheard him approaching one woman after another on her way out the door to ask for their email addresses. “You look uncomfortable,” he commented to one woman. “Yes I’m uncomfortable,” she answered, “we just had a really strange conversation.”

Women, apparently, are the main dish served at Haynes’s suppers. The food was nothing much, a plate of pulled pork, rice, beans, guacamole, and pineapple – comforting and bland, clearly not the point of the gathering, just a routine to keep us busy. We ate standing up (there are hardly enough seats for a third of the guests). There was warm beer, soda, and boxed wine. I thought longingly of Natalie Barney’s champagne and Alice B. Toklas’s alcoholic punch as I diligently swigged at my warm beer to prepare myself for small talk. And then I fended off one boring older guy after another for two hours until it was time to go. I was startled when, while seated in conversation with a young woman no older than twenty, an older man walking by suddenly swooped down and kissed her on top of the head. “You never know what will overtake you,” he said, or something to that effect, before moving on. Perhaps Haynes’s salon has something in common with Barney’s after all. A young woman who attended one of Barney’s Friday afternoons in 1937 was startled to see the sixty-one year old hostess passionately kissing a beautiful, blonde, young American girl in attendance. At least Barney served champagne.

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

6 thoughts

  1. Oh Rachel forgot to say that we always have champagne books and music at two nights a year: April 30 and October 31, dates exactly six months apart that matter to us all. All Hallows’ Eve was just the 138th birthday of Natalie Barney (along with Marie Laurencin and others in their bewitching circle). As for kissing pretty girls in the doorway, 138 is the new 50 darling, à chacon sa tour–and I can also guarantee no bland food, loud politics or or lechy lotharios at my place!

    Then oh let’s see what’s on for April 30? It’s always something, what with my birthday coinciding with Lily’s and Natalie’s anniversary, always a late night with the plovers eggs and the Chateau Yquem, followed the next day by Romaine’s birthday, which means reluctantly getting out of bed and hunting down a chocolate cake pronto, plus making time somehow for the odd fascinating interview … Well, for instance, this year we had the most interesting astrologers popping by to tell us what’s what. Who knows what 2015 will bring? Except perhaps your delicious cooking. So consider herself and your readers more than invited. Consider yourselves family. A la prochaine….

  2. I was intrigued by the idea of attending a salon in Paris. Any success finding a more authentic experience? I’m headed there in August so would love any recommendations.

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